And furthermore ...

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Friday 29 October 2010


 19th Century New Zealand Landscapes
 "If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is."
Mark Twain

Between the 1860s and the 1890s photographers working for the various US geological surveys documenting the landscape established a mythic image of America that still resonates. John Ford, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx owe something to them when it comes to imagining the landscape and where we stand as mere humans in its epic sweep. Photographers of the west have never been able to shake loose of their influence. Nearly 150 years on, the template that O’Sullivan, Jackson et al provided persists; it is what America should look like. At about the same time photographers were wandering about New Zealand. In technical skill and aesthetic judgement they were the equals of the Americans yet they are barely known outside their country. It’s not hard to understand why; no one imagined the hopes and dreams of western civilization would reside in New Zealand. Still, credit where it’s due. The New Zealanders were some of the finest landscape photographers of their age and it’s possible they had no idea what was going on in America.

As countries go it’s somewhat idiosyncratic; geographically located in the South Pacific but geologically closer to Scandinavia or Japan, where active volcanoes and glaciers feed into tropical forests, mountainous fjords on one side, white palm fringed beaches on the other. It’s as though the entire European land mass was compressed into an area a little bigger than Britain. Finding routes through the mountains may have been forbidding but this wasn’t a country large enough to ‘tame’ in the sense that Americans or Australians would talk about dominating the land. And speaking of Australia, the New Zealand photographers provide some evidence of why landscape photography barely existed in that country. The written accounts of early Australian settlers don’t hold much fascination for the land. Away from the coast it quickly becomes flat, dry and wretched and they complain incessantly about the heat, the flies, sandstorms, lack of water and their primitive living conditions, none of which inspire people to think about the photogenic qualities of a place. The New Zealanders on the other hand, who didn’t have to travel far to find spectacular views, could also enter areas that reminded them of their homeland. With a little imagination they could think they were in Cheddar Gorge or the Scottish highlands.

The photographs in this post come from a small album of miniature snapshots with the inscription, “Christmas 1924/ with much love and best wishes from mother”. Two of the images can be identified as being taken by George Valentine, son of James Valentine, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1884 for his health and died six years later. As discussed in a previous post, the Valentine Company frequently printed from old plates in its extensive library, so it can be assumed all the photographs in the album were taken by George some forty years earlier. Like Alfred Burton, another British émigré working at the same time, Valentine, who already had a reputation as a landscape photographer in Scotland, saw his market in tourism and in the few years left in his life took hundreds of landscapes and ethnographic studies of the Maoris.

Photographers don’t like admitting this but the hardest job they often have in taking a landscape is finding the right point of view. Valentine belonged to that early school whose only requirements were a formalist aesthetic and a willingness to wait around for the right conditions. The landscape of New Zealand he photographed was every bit as majestic and Arcadian as the American west. In that sense he deserves to be regarded with the same respect as the Americans are.


Saturday 23 October 2010


Paper Negative Prints from the 1930s

“We’re changing the world with technology.”
Bill Gates

When William Fox Talbot took his photograph of a window at Laycock Abbey in 1835 (officially the earliest photograph in existence) he kept his process secret, which could have undone him. Four years later, when Louis Daguerre presented his daguerreotype, he made sure all the information became public knowledge, ensuring he would not only usurp the claim to be the inventor of photography but guarantee his process would dominate for the next ten years. A few cottoned on to Talbot’s secret; French photographers in particular admired the delicate tones of the Talbotype, or Calotype as it was better known and it had one advantage over the daguerreotype in that that an original negative on paper was made from which prints could be produced but economically it was no competition. The market for Calotypes was refined. Then at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 Frederick Scott Archer formally unveiled his wet collodion process. The advantages negatives on glass had over paper were so many that the Calotype should have effectively become extinct. That didn’t happen. The images in this post are evidence of that. 

The photographs here are negative paper prints taken in the 1930s. They use paper as the film stock and with a few variations the process for creating the final positive print closely follows Talbot’s to a degree they can be regarded as direct descendents. Sensitized paper replaced celluloid in the plate holder, the image was exposed then taken to a darkroom for development. As it was being washed another sheet of unexposed paper was added to the tray, improving its translucency. Both sheets were removed, sandwiched together under glass and exposed to a light source. A positive contact print could now be developed. People did this because it was cheap and fast since there was no need buy film or wait for the negative to dry. Not surprisingly perhaps the process was stock in trade for photographers who needed to work quickly and weren’t too bothered with quality, the type for example who worked in fairgrounds and could knock up a print for the customer in a few minutes. 

That being the case, the Calotype may have survived but its place in photography as a fast cheap alternative seems a diminishment, a bit like a once great singer performing in an empty nightclub or an old fighter returning to the small, shabby arenas he started out in. Not so. Around fifteen years ago, at the moment just before digitalization changed photography, there was sudden revival in old processes, linked you have to think, to an unconscious awareness everything was about to change. Photographers like Sally Mann discovered the joys of the collodion process and some photographers went even further back, to the most basic camera possible; the pinhole. Today pinhole photography is established as an alternative process and among its practitioners there is a general feeling that if the camera is going to be a primitive construction, literally a cardboard box, then the film stock should likewise be basic. The paper negative survives. It is more popular now than it ever has been.

Technologies are superceded by others that are more efficient but they don’t die. Polaroid and Kodachrome films are no longer being manufactured but so long as the knowledge on how to make them is available devoted aesthetes will continue to try to produce them. In the same way the very ease of digital photography has created a nostalgia for standard film. There are people too who see the switch to digital as a betrayal of everything sacred about photography. They will continue using film and if that becomes no longer possible they will turn to the paper negative.


Sunday 17 October 2010


An English Family's Photo Album, 1920s
"The world is neither meaningful, nor absurd. It quite simply is, and that, in any case, is what is so remarkable about it."
Alain Robbe-Grillet

In the 1950s a group of French writers including Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras wanted to be done with the traditional novel, it’s linear narrative and fully formed characters, and reach for something more resonant with the contemporary world. In the Nouvelle Roman, characters weren’t to have back stories but were to exist entirely in the present, which itself was a fluid term as the author was entitled to flash the narrative backwards and forwards, creating a sense as fractured and mysterious as contemporary existence appeared to be. Within a few years we the readers, or more precisely a select, enlightened core, would have liberated ourselves from the regime of logical cause and effect that the traditional novel imposed on us. 

Maybe the Nouvelle Romanciers were aware that a model for their new approach already existed in homes across the world and that people who’d scarcely read a novel in their own language were masters of the form. What is the typical family photo album but a perfect exposition of the Nouvelle Roman? It is a narrative comprised of fragments, some of which barely relate to one another. Characters, evidently important to the main players, fill a page only to disappear, never to be heard from again. The reader is pointed to certain scenes and the implication that they matter but why and to who is never explained. Most importantly, the readers are given only a little help; the business of interpretation is left entirely up to them.

The Nouvelle Romanciers realized they could not change the whole fabric of literature but it’s no surprise that Robbe-Grillet and Duras had their greatest success with a film; Last Year at Marienbad. They could argue that language failed to describe the world but the model they based their theory on was essentially visual. They were also working at that moment when visualization through television, cinema and photography was beginning to eclipse the written word; about the same time publishers discovered the photo book.

The photographs in this post come from an album of some 200 snapshots. The entire album covers a period from about the First World War to the 1960s. The photos here were taken the 1920s (as were most in the album). They show a lower middle class family living in an English village and a couple of photos get a bit more intimate than normal, in the sense that we get some indoor scenes of drunkenness and clumsy dancing, common enough in daily life though not in family albums. We also get a wedding, a ramble, two people on a tandem, an attempt at a cheap outdoor studio, several men in their new cars and shots of the village, which altogether is very generous. If Robbe-Grillet had wanted to tell their story he would have been lost for words.


Tuesday 12 October 2010


19th Century Folk Costumes

 “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken.”
Oscar Wilde

The fishing village of Filey on North Yorkshire’s coast was hardly considered exotic in the 1860s. Herring, the staple of the British gentleman’s breakfast table, had provided its basic reason for existence since the middle ages though its beach was beginning to attract visitors from the smog bound industrial cities. Caught up in the excitement of the modern world with its steam trains and factories, a fair few of them probably thought the sight of fisherwomen carrying on their traditional occupation with wicker baskets on their heads were a quaint sight. The photographer Kendall guessed so when he photographed a bait catcher, or rather, when he brought a woman, possibly a bait catcher, and possibly from Filey, into his studio and posed her against a painted backdrop. 

In the 1860s hundreds of photographers were setting out for Egypt, India and other foreign lands in search of the local colour but more stayed at home and looked for it among the workers in their neighbourhood. A photograph of someone in folkloric dress was good for the tourist trade, at a time when tourism really meant catching a train into another county to see what was going on. Portraits of regional types were just as lucrative as those of foreigners. 

Photographs of European national types for the tourist market follow the same format as more typical ethnographic portraits with one difference. A portrait of an Egyptian, Native American or Asian generally featured an actual representative. With the homegrown variety it wasn’t necessary to find authenticity, merely dress someone up.

In the 1860s French photographer Adolph Braun was making his name photographing sculptures and flowers and buildings useful to artists as studies. (He is still considered an art photographer today because his architectural studies are exceptional.) Working in Switzerland, he extended his range into national costumes and photographed examples from every canton, probably the most extensive work of this nature by a single European. ‘Costume’ is the important word. Like Kendall and everyone else who photographed folkloric subjects, he was only really interested in the artifacts; in this case the clothes and was probably the first to discover the intersection between portrait and fashion photography that marked work in the 20th century. 

Mimicry or imitation is the element that also distinguishes these photographs from standard and more widespread occupational portraits. At a time when particular trades and occupations were still regional, folkloric images commonly referred to work but authentic occupational photographs were usually at the instigation of the sitter, the employer or the studio photographer documenting types. The differences are obvious and easy to spot. 

For all this talk about authenticity a curious thing has happened. As we inevitably move further away from the moment Kendall photographed the woman in her bait catching outfit, or when Braun photographed the models in their Swiss costumes, these photographs have become the closest we have to authentic records of how certain people dressed. Age strangely makes them more real.



Sunday 3 October 2010

Dance to the Music of Time

Dance photographs

“The dancer's body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.”
Isadora Duncan

When Edgar Degas wanted to paint dancers he found that taking photographs of them first saved time but also captured details he could study and work on in the studio. The idea wasn’t revolutionary; John Ruskin, who insisted photography could never be art, still thought the camera had a role in recording scenes for future uses but Degas discovered something else. The way the camera framed scenes, sometimes with objects or people intruding at the edges, could be transferred to the canvas. Other painters might hold to the notion that the painting should be a self enclosed world, Degas however was thinking like a photographer but more than that, like a twentieth century photographer, especially in the idea that the edge of the frame should intimate that a wider world existed beyond it. 

Degas died in 1917, time enough to be aware that Isadora Duncan had reinterpreted the art of dance in a way that acknowledged what was incredibly obvious yet resolutely ignored by many patrons of the ballet; dance was a sensual art. The body was erotic. Whatever she thought of photography, if she even thought about it at all, contemporary photographers understood what she was on about. Her professional career more or less coincided with the high point of Pictorialism, when photographers were using soft focus and painterly effect and, just like Duncan, looking to classical paganism and art to evoke eroticism.

The Modernists rejected the trappings of Pictorialism and went back to sharp focus and clear lines. They also dismissed classical allusions but they kept one idea from their forbears alive; the body was a thing to be celebrated, mutated sometimes or cruelly distorted but a temple nevertheless. Contemporary choreographers like Martha Graham were in agreement. Whatever debt she owed to Duncan, she asked her dancers to follow specific directions rather than their own feelings, and she preferred them clothed. Lighting and stage direction could suggest the life force of the body every bit as explicitly as liberated movement. Duncan and the other free dancers were becoming objects of satire. The notion of the students at an exclusive college for ladies receiving instruction in free dance could always raise a knowing laugh.

Some people would have been perplexed by so much theory about the body and movement. For them dance had always been about the pleasure of young women’s bodies, but then the burlesque and cabarets were worlds away from ballet. If high art in dance demanded its equal in photography then down below, in the nightclubs photographers were expected to show skill though not necessarily ingenuity. Brassai skulked between artists and artistes and Lisette Model and Weegee took their cameras into low dives but they were essentially tourists. Most of the photographers working the scene were otherwise unknown professionals; a lot like the girls. We have no idea who photographed the “Couty girls” (‘Cutie’? Country?’) when they performed in Istanbul in 1956 but he or she understood exactly what was required to give a revue the necessary tarnished glamour.